By Tania Penovic
Much has been written about the News Corp fiasco. Beyond the shock and titillation offered by the story lie serious ramifications for Australia’s media. The influence of News Corp is far reaching. The operation of one of its British tabloid newspapers has revealed the extent to which pursuit of commercial imperatives can obliterate journalistic ethics, promote criminal conduct and undermine fundamental rights.
The scandal will be the subject of two judicial inquiries, one dealing with payments made to police officers and the other into telephone ‘hacking’. What is currently understood is that News staffers engaged in widespread hacking, targeting celebrities, members of the royal family, military forces, police and government. Beyond this, News allegedly hacked into the mobile telephone account of murdered British schoolgirl Milly Dowler, and family members of a number of individuals who died in tragic and violent circumstances; including two schoolgirls murdered at Soham, victims of the London terrorist attacks of 7 July 2005 and soldiers who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The deletion of voicemail messages from Milly Dowler’s telephone in the days following her disappearance interfered with the police investigation and gave her parents false hope that she was still alive; hope which became fodder for News’ pages in an exclusive interview. Further allegations have surfaced about News’ wholesale deletion of emails in order to obstruct police investigations.
Deep concerns have been raised about the human rights of those unfortunate enough to be targeted by News’ activities. These people have been victims of arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy and family as proscribed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. For the grieving family members, this is an attack upon their human dignity of the most pernicious variety and could amount to cruel and inhuman treatment. The prohibition on such treatment constitutes one of the Covenant’s non-derogable rights which cannot be limited, even in times of public emergency and is a key right enshrined in the Torture Convention.
James Murdoch has conceded that he approved out of court settlements when he ‘did not have a complete picture’ and that ‘[t]his was wrong and is a matter of serious regret.’ He has not conceded that in its quest for tabloid copy, his company has operated without regard for human rights and often targeted extremely vulnerable and traumatised people. It seems that News operated in the hope that it would not be called to account. When legal action took place, it would appear that out of court settlements were just another business expense.
It may well be said that human rights have no place in the private operations of corporations such as News Corp. There have been developments within the United Nations towards recognising corporations as the bearers of human rights obligations. Nevertheless, protecting the rights of individuals remains the responsibility of governments. In discharging their obligations under international law, governments are required to address their own conduct and that of private entities within their jurisdiction, such as corporations and private individuals, that impact upon the realisation of human rights.
It appears that the British government and its prosecutorial authorities have failed to properly address News’ criminal activities and incursions into human rights. The reasons are likely to be manifold. The influence exerted by News Corp and the company’s close connection with members of the government and police have undoubtedly played a part.
News Corp’s wholly owned News Limited operates 8 of Australia’s metropolitan daily newspapers, including Australia’s national broadsheet, The Australian. Beyond the corporation’s significant lobbying efforts, the pages of The Australian have played host to a range of campaigns; including an anti Bill of Rights campaign and the current campaign targeting the ABC. With monotonous regularity, the ABC has been lambasted for its programming, its culture, the quality of its content and even its revised editorial policies. In News Limited’s Melbourne tabloid the Herald Sun this week, Neil Mitchell accused the ABC of ‘following the grand television tradition that if you aim for the lowest common denominator with an audience you can’t fail.’ Hmmmm.
The campaign to undermine the ABC is hardly surprising. The ABC has been engaged in a tender for a service which it currently operates, Australia’s publicly-funded overseas television network known as Australia Network. The service offers our nation’s culture, values and perspectives to an international audience. All comparable international services are delivered through public broadcasters. These include the iconic BBC, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America. Such services present a diversity of human stories and promote cross-cultural understanding. In their provision of news, guided by ethical standards and uncompromised by commercial imperatives, such services demonstrate the host nation’s commitment to human rights and democracy.
After lobbying by Sky News, the federal government decided to open the future of Australia Network to tender. Sky News is owned jointly by BSkyB and the Seven and Nine networks. News Corp’s currently holds a 39% stake in BSkyB, with its quest for 100% control suspended for the time being. Writing in The Australian, Mark Day has described concerns about News Corp’s links with Sky as ‘as tenuous as it gets’. Of course he would say that!
An outsourced international voice of Australia would inevitably be muffled or modified if commercial imperatives so dictate. News Corp has demonstrated a willingness in the past to exploit business opportunities by compromising broadcasting. News Corp’s link with Sky is not as tenuous as its copy has asserted. Sky should now withdraw from the tender process, as News Corp has (at least for the moment) from its BSkyB takeover bid.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has reportedly acknowledged that he and other politicians had failed to stop and ask whether media organisations were behaving poorly and acknowledged that politicians must ‘stop, frankly, trying to curry favour with the media.’ These words do not apply in Britain alone.
Tania Penovic is a member of the ABC Advisory Council but the views expressed are hers alone and are in no way reflective of the views taken by the ABC.